Our first destination in Nicaragua was going to be the island of Ometepe, an island with two volcano in the enormous Lake of Nicaragua.
Getting to Nicaragua
We left Monteverde on the 4.20 am bus to Puntarenas and got off at the Panamericana in La Irma. 4.20 am was obviously way too early after our activity-packed day in Monteverde but there weren’t many options… either 4.20 or 3 pm. After a not so long wait in La Irma, we caught a bus to Peñas Blancas, the border with Nicaragua.
At the border, you first have to pay $7 to leave Costa Rica (I still don’t understand what exactly departure taxes are for), then you get your passport stamped and walk to the Nicaraguan side of the border. In a small tent a nice lady gives you a ticket (what it’s for? No idea. Entrance ticket to the country maybe..?), after that you walk to the immigration office. Ignore the “taxi, taxi” calls, the office is just across the street.
Entering Nicaragua costs another $13 but the formalities are very straightforward. Once outside the building, you’re surrounded by people shouting “taxi, taxi! San Juan del Sur? Where you going? A donde van? Granada? Rivas?” – stay calm, and take a bus, it’s cheap and you won’t get ripped off. Nicaragua may be cheap but even so, you don’t want to pay the double (or triple) price a local pays. Although, coming from Costa Rica, you might be just as happy (it’s so cheap!) as the taxi driver (cool, they paid me 100 instead of 40 Córdobas!).
From Rivas to the Isla de Ometepe
There are regular buses to Rivas from where you can take a taxi (20-25 Córdobas per person) to the port of San Jorge. From there, boats to Ometepe depart; the last one at 5.30 pm. Both lanchas (small wooden boats) and ferries go to Moyogalpa and both take one hour. I highly recommend the ferry. The lancha sounds like it’s going to break apart any moment. And judging by the looks of it, it might. Believe me.
Both of Ometepe’s volcanoes can be climbed with a tour from Moyogalpa, but it’s much cheaper to do Maderas (the smaller one) from a town closer to the volcano. Virtually all tour operators in Moyogalpa offer the Concepción volcano tour for USD20 per person. Tours usually start at 5 in the morning, sometimes at 7, and we thought, no way, 7 is too late, the earlier the better! At Little Nathaly tours (very nice staff!) we found what we thought was the best tour: Start is at 2 pm, you hike up to 1000 meters where you spend the night in a tent in a wooden cabin, and the next morning you climb up to the crater.
What we didn’t know then but found out in the few days we spent on the island, is that usually the volcano is clouded in the morning, and the clouds clear up in the late afternoon. Why the tours don’t adjust to this, we couldn’t find out (the best would be to start around 10 am and come back at 5 or 6 pm).
The afternoon we hiked up the Concepción, the volcano was free of clouds and we had the most amazing views up to the crater and over parts of the island all the way to Rivas and Granada and Mombacho volcano. Unfortunately, when we arrived at 1000 meters, it was already 5 pm and therefore too late to climb up to the crater. We would have to go down in the dark and there are lots of nocturnal poisonous snakes around.
A night on the volcano
The sunset was spectacular but sleeping in the tent without a mattress on the wooden floor was more than uncomfortable. We expected that at least the we’d start early the next morning, say, 5 or 6 am, but a) it was cloudy and raining, and b) the guide wanted to wait for the groups who started hiking at 5 to arrive at the cabin so we could all go to the crater together. So what exactly is the point of sleeping on the volcano if you can’t start really early, and if it’s always cloudy in the morning? (Good question. Still waiting for an answer.)
After hiking up to the tree line (with three other groups) we decided not to go to the crater – the winds were way too strong, they could blow you away easily which made the ascent quite dangerous. And anyway, the clouds were so thick, you couldn’t see a thing. Pretty disappointed we went down again and got back to Moyogalpa just in time for lunch and to watch the clouds on the volcano slowly disappear in the afternoon.
An island tour
There are several ways to get to know the island. It’s very popular to rent a scooter for 15-20 USD but you can also hire a driver/guide with a car, which is what we did (because – you got it – I don’t know how to drive a scooter). It’s a bit more expensive but the cars have A/C (oh yes). We visited a lagoon, went to see ancient statues and petroglyphs (the island has been inhabited for over 4000 years), swam in a turquoise blue waterhole, ate delicious fish at Santo Domingo beach (if I remember correctly, it was at restaurant Cocibolca) and watched the sunset from Punta Jesús María, a narrow strip of sand stretching into the lake and an amazing spot for sunset lovers.
Ometepe – a beautiful destination
Ometepe is a very beautiful island, it’s tranquil, there’s almost no traffic, people are relaxed, and the food is good. Plan enough time however, even though the island is small, there are lots of things to do and see. The sunsets are fantastic, and at night there’s a cool breeze, something you’ll truly miss in Granada or León when you’re desperately trying to sleep in spite of the suffocating heat in your room.